Cultural Translation and Literary Self-Reflection: Andrey Belyj's 1911 Journey to Sicily

Marilena Ruscica, Stanford University

In 1911 Andrey Belyj and Asja Turgeneva went together on a journey during which they visited Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, Egypt and Palestine. The travel notes that were meant to be published, in a journalist fashion, contemporary to the travel experience, were instead reviewed, edited and arranged into one volume entitled Putevye zametki published in Moscow and Berlin only in 1921. Unjustly neglected, this work is an extraordinary example of modernist travel literature and, as N. Kotrelev suggested, also Belyj's happiest prose.

In my presentation I will focus on the "Sicilian" chapters. In Sicily, located on the verge of European culture, the writer is forced to adopt an interesting literary strategy of interpretation to identify the western mark, visible only through superimposed layers of adopted or forcibly imposed traces or Oriental culture. Belyj "reads" this Sicilian history in the elements of the surrounding space, and in the architecture in particular.

By treating the act of traveling as an act of translation "that constantly works to produce a tense space in between" (Duncan, J. and Gregory, D. "Introduction," Writes of Passage. Reading Travel Writing, London1999), I will discuss the way Belyj operates inside this space by filling it with the dense dialectics of translation and I will argue that, in doing so, he is on the way to understand himself in displacement. Belyj decodes the unfamiliar helped by previous "translations" into languages he is familiar with: literature and music. Belyj uses Wolfgang Goethe's own interpretation of Sicily in his Journey to Italy, together with what he thought was Richard Wagner's absorption of the fundamental dialectics of Sicilian culture in Parsifal, the opera the German composer completed in 1881 while residing in Sicily. Only by becoming comparable to a literary experience of self-reflection, the journey can become understandable to the writer and justifiable in the totality of his own life experience. In Belyj's case, I would argue that this experience functions as entrance into the realm of self observation and literary autobiographism. Only the ability or the necessity to resolve what in Sicily appears to be a problem of content, esthetics and creation acts as the stimulus that will move him forward on his journey to Africa.

During my presentation I will show images of the places Belyj visited in northwestern Sicily and described in his notes. The purpose of this visual integration is to illustrate Belyj's experiences of estrangement, cultural translation and literary self-reflection.